Alberta must show if oilsands impact reduced, says group

Environmentalists are trying to force the Alberta government to show it's followed through on previous recommendations to reduce the impact of oilsands mines before any more projects are approved.

Province needs to reveal if oilsands mines lived up to promises to reduce impact on environment

Environmentalists are trying to force the Alberta government to show it's followed through on previous recommendations to reduce the impact of oilsands mines before any more projects are approved.

The Oilsands Environmental Coalition has asked the regulatory panel examining Shell's proposed Jackpine expansion to check into the status of dozens of recommendations by previous panels.

Those recommendations were conditions under which previous oilsands projects were given the OK, but there's no information on whether they've been lived up to, said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute.

"There's no accountability," Dyer said. "We fear many of (the recommendations) have not been acted upon.

"These were recommendations that the panel said had to happen for the project to be in the public interest."

The groups combed through the approvals for four major oilsands projects made by joint federal-provincial impact assessment panels.

Approvals based on recommendations

Each of those four panels concluded the projects would have no significant adverse environmental effects, provided the recommendations were followed.

There are a total of 108 separate recommendations, although some repeated from panel to panel.

The Pembina Institute, part of the coalition that filed the motion, then tried to find out how many of those recommendations had been implemented. They were unable to do so.

"There's no public registry," said Dyer. "There's no contact person."

Some of the recommendations have been met, such as the 2004 recommendation for a study into how much water the Athabasca River needs to stay healthy.

Others haven't. The water management framework based on that study remains stalled at phase one, more than a year after it was supposed to have moved forward.

But the status of most of the recommendations, which involve everything from wildlife impacts to tailings management to emissions from mine vehicles, is simply unclear.

Randall Barrett of Alberta Environment said recommendations dealing specifically with a project — allowable level of sulphur emissions, for example — are tracked very closely.

But he said those dealing with larger issues, such as overall water use, are simply considered part of the government's ongoing environmental monitoring work and are not tied as closely to project approvals.

Timelines often change

"We carefully track the high-consequence items that are used in the public-interest test for that project," he said. "The other items relative to ongoing work, we consider those, but the timing on those is not tracked in the same way."

Barrett acknowledged that timelines for such issues often change and may not conform to those set out in project approvals.

The coalition is arguing that hearings on Shell's Jackpine expansion, which would produce 100,000 barrels a day, can't proceed until the panel finds out what happened with those recommendations.

Until that happens, Dyer said it's impossible to know how the project will add to environmental impacts the oilsands region is already seeing.

"We've got a cumulative effects problem that's getting worse with every project that's approved," he said.

Shell says concerns are too late

Shell argues the coalition's motion has come too late in the game and should be disregarded.

"The time to make such a submission has long since passed," it says in its own filing.

A federal government submission filed last Tuesday argues the status of recommendations from previous panels isn't relevant to this one, and points out no previous panel has been asked to deal with the issue.

"This panel's process is not intended to serve as a proxy for a fishing expedition by (the coalition)," says the letter. "Nor is it necessary that the panel perform an audit function related to the implementation of recommendations of prior panels."

The review panel will have to rule on the coalition's request. A spokeswoman for the panel said there's no timeline on such a decision.

The issue arises as Alberta Environment considers a report into how its long-awaited "world-class" environmental monitoring program for the oilsands should be structured.

Officials have confirmed Environment Minister Diana McQueen has received the report and discussed it with its authors. Among the issues it's expected to address is the program's independence.

McQueen is expected to release the report in the coming weeks.